HOWL has been working hard trying to fund the wildlife dream because as most of us know, getting a paid job in conservation is no easy task. I’ve been trying my hand at waitressing in my local country pub whilst volunteering where I can. It’s a big change from working outdoors and it’s not something that came naturally to me, but I persisted and am gaining some good transferable skills. I quite often end up talking about conservation and ecology with the locals, so I guess I am multi-tasking a bit here..pint-pulling with a hint of education!
Things have died down a bit now, so I can sum up what I learned from three speakers at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust during wolf awareness week.
Paul Lister is the owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve located in the Caledonian Forest in north-east Scotland. His vision is to create and maintain an area of outstanding natural beauty where animals previously extinct in Britain can be introduced, letting nature return itself to an early Holocene.
Approximately 7,000 years ago, Britain was heavily forested. However, much of our native woodland was lost due to deforestation to make room for farmland. As a result, we pushed our large mammals into extinction, with the wolf being the last to go in the 17th century. The introduction of the wolf (and potentially bears) would not only maintain a healthy, balanced ecosystem (see post on trophic cascades), but they would also increase tourism. A diverse range of species currently found on the estate would benefit, such as Elk and wild boar, which have been introduced on a trial basis to the 23,000 acre estate. Highland cattle, red deer, otter, mountain hare, badger and pine marten are also present, more than 800,000 native trees have been planted, and the estate is involved in projects to protect native species including the Scottish wildcat and the red squirrel. However, his proposals to bring back these predators have drawn criticism. Farmers, walkers and legal experts have all expressed their opposition to the scheme.
It is important to note that this wouldn’t technically be classed as a reintroduction; instead Paul terms it as a controlled release. A feasibility study is to be carried out on this big vision, which is “to have a minimum area of 50,000 acres, have a fence around it, and bring back wolves and bears into that area”. This may sound ambitious but it was made clear that it would be several years before we may see wolves back on the landscape in Scotland. A concern was also raised regarding the number of wolves to be released. Paul stated that on 50,000 acres he would like two packs of wolves. However, with their highly territorial behaviour is this feasible? If the packs came into conflict then their encounter may result in the death of individual pack members, raising concern based on ethical grounds.
I shall be following Paul’s vision. It will be interesting to see how it develops and how he overcomes the increasing number issues that will no doubt be inevitable with such an ambitious project.
Dr. Cristina Eisenberg
Dr. Cristina Eisenberg comes from a ranching background and lives in a remote log cabin in northwest Montana, where grizzly bear and wolf populations outnumber the human population. Her research has a strong focus on trophic cascades involving wolves, elk and aspen in National Parks and the ecological effectiveness of wolves. It was Cristina’s presentation that made me rethink the approach of my trophic cascade post during wolf awareness week. I concluded the post by explaining the importance of a top-down approach in conservation. However, I feel that it is necessary to expand on the importance of both the top-down (effects of predation) and bottom-up approach (nutrient flow).
It has been argued that the top-down approach fails to address the full complexity of systems, including omnivory and many believe that both the bottom-up and top-down approach work in synergy with one another. If we take boreal forests as an example, as productivity increases , plant biomass (total mass of living matter of a particular type) increases, herbivore biomass increases, and ecosystems become capable of sustaining a third tropic level – the predators – with this level controlling the herbivores. This perfectly sums up this synergy and identifies environmental productivity as a key driver as opposed to the slightly biased predator controlled approach discussed previously.
Dr. Doug Smith
Doug Smith is project leader of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction programme and has been signed on since 1994. This project takes advantage of the visibility of Yellowstone’s wolves to explore wolf population dynamics. Of particular interest is how wolves interact with prey and scavenger populations in the park.
This strong interest has revealed that wolf diet in Yellowstone is predominately elk (90%), with calves and old females being preyed upon most. This means that wolves avoid the prime age segment of elk, avoiding those which have a higher reproduction potential. This selective behaviour not only saves the wolves time and energy in hunting (and potential harm from healthy adults) but also regulates the elk population, keeping it strong and healthy. Doug also emphasised the importance of these kills, describing them as a beginning rather than end because of the many other species that benefit. This project has not been without its controversy, with wolves being to blame for an overall decline in elk numbers. However, what many fail to understand is that there are a number of factors that are contributing to this. Not only do we have wolf predation, but we also have hunting pressure and the area has also experienced a 6 year drought, impacting the vegetation, which in turn negatively impacts the elk population.
This project really is key in putting the important pieces of a puzzle back together and understanding how wolves fit back into the ecosystem, particularly in the face of climate change. Smith hopes that the project can help replace common misconceptions about wolves with factual information.
Time to focus on the local stuff!
I shall now be moving away from the wolves and focusing more on my local volunteer work which was HOWL’s initial aim. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on my recent bird and stag beetle adventures, which have been keeping me busy for the past couple of months!